The Corpse

Of the many rumors surrounding Bredo Morstoel, here is the most endearing: He arranged his deathbed pillows into a secret signal for his grandson.

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May 2 2010, 12:00am
WORDS AND ILLUSTRATIONS BY SAM McPHEETERS

Of the many rumors surrounding Bredo Morstoel, here is the most endearing: He arranged his deathbed pillows into a secret signal for his grandson. As with most myths surrounding Bredo, the truth lies far beyond the possibility of verification. And as with most celebrities, myths are slowly submerging facts in his biography. Not being alive, Bredo has far less recourse against mythology than any other celebrity on earth.

Morstoel was born in 1900, in a small town near one of western Norway’s ice fjords. He settled in Bærum, a coastal suburb of Oslo, married in 1928, and had a daughter, Aud, in 1930. Bredo eventually ran Bærum’s parks-and-recreation department, where his duties included the design of churchyards and picnic areas. His was, by all accounts, a staggeringly uninteresting life. Even when the Nazis occupied Norway from 1940 to 1945, and later, when his wife died in 1978, Bredo remained in Bærum, an outdoorsman, skier, and painter well into his golden years.

In 1975, Bredo suffered a heart attack during a six-mile ski trip in deep, fresh snow. He almost died, but Aud was able to massage his chest and revive him. He recovered, and after making dietary changes, he was able to alleviate some of his angina pain. But his heart was still weak, and in his late 80s he suffered several smaller attacks. Denied a chance at a new heart by his doctors, he settled into a more sedentary lifestyle and hoped his luck would last.

On the first Monday in November of 1989, Aud phoned her 31-year-old son, Trygve Bauge, and told him that Bredo had just died during a brief nap. Trygve quickly reached a bold conclusion: He was going to freeze his grandfather. It was only years later that Trygve heard that the pillows on his grandfather’s bed had been arranged to form a T, as if to signal that Bredo wanted his grandson to take care of his earthly remains.


Trygve had been living in Colorado for nearly ten years. He’d come to the US on a temporary visa in 1980, and over the course of the decade had made a name for himself in Boulder County as a lovable, long-bearded eccentric. Boulder’s New Year’s Polar Bear Plunge—now hundreds strong annually—started with Trygve’s lone leaps into frigid waters. In 1986, he was arrested at Denver’s Stapleton International Airport after making a hijacking joke, then, after the police stepped in, complaining loudly about his First Amendment rights.

Trygve’s politics defy pat classification. From his website, one can learn that his “focus is on life-extension, objectivism, entrepreneurial liberty & livable survival of nuclear war & lesser dangers. He is specializing in nuclear war-proof life-extension centers & is also known for organizing health building sessions, icebathing & cryonic suspensions, & for holding the icebathing world record: (1 hour, 5 minutes & 51 seconds in 2 degree water).”

His interests reflect a dense mix of libertarianism, survivalism, and Ayn Randism. In one of many recent phone and email exchanges between Trygve and myself, he launched into a diatribe against Obama’s health-care reforms, telling me, “In liberty it is up to the individual to generate wealth and how to use its own values” (he later told me he blamed Norway’s universal health care for his grandfather’s death). Several times in our conversations he expressed admiration for Ronald Reagan.

Trygve saw his grandfather’s freezing as a pilot case, one that could allow his mother and, eventually, himself to be frozen under more ideal circumstances. When I spoke with him, I noticed that Trygve used the word “died,” not “deanimated” (“deanimation” is the cryonics industry’s preferred wording, reflecting the belief that frozen brains are merely clinically dead, awaiting resuscitation by currently unavailable technology). Then again, there wasn’t much about Bredo’s suspension that any professional cryonicist would have approved. Trygve had had to convince his mom, and then the hospital, of his plans. Although he arranged by phone to have the body quickly moved to a refrigerated morgue, it remained there for three or four days in a room chilled only to zero Fahrenheit. Established cryonics facilities list -321° F as the ideal end temperature for deanimated patients (either bodies or heads, the hope being that future doctors can clone new parts), although it requires a complicated interim period to safely reach -321°. Human meat spoils much slower at zero than at room temperature, but zero is still far too warm when dealing with fragile brain cells.

Years before his grandfather’s death, Trygve had heard of Bay Area cryonics company Trans Time, and this was the name he had on hand in 1989. Though he had his own plans for a cryonics center—pastoral utopian designs of domes and hillocks—they were nothing more than plans. So Bredo was packed in dry ice and shipped to San Francisco. There his body was submerged in liquid nitrogen to wait for the day when advanced technology could repair his age, heart, cellular damage, and chronic mortality. It was going to be a long wait.

In 1990, I wrote to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation and requested some literature. I needed details on the world of cryonics for a piece of fiction I was working on, and Alcor was—and remains—the largest and most visible cryonics company in the world. Weeks later, I received a fat envelope stuffed with more than a hundred pages of outlandish photocopies, closer to amateur fanzines than actual press materials. There was MISADVENTURE AS A CAUSE OF DEATH IN IMMORTAL POPULATIONS and THE DEATH OF DEATH IN CRYONICS. The endearingly slapdash nature of the presentation starkly contrasted with the dense jargon—medical and technical—of its own subject.

The Alcorians also showed an odd faith in human progress. “When the age problem itself has been solved,” one article told me, “the age dependent diseases headed by cancer and circulatory diseases will automatically fall in line.” More than once I read, “Indefinite youth and good health are the birthright of everyone.” Aging was compared to nuclear war as a risk to human productivity. In the fashion of any grandiose underground movement, political or otherwise, cryonicists frequently compared themselves to abolitionists.

This literature included an impressive array of cryptic clip art: heads, computers, snowflakes, Tron-style grids. Discussions of mankind’s wondrous horizons featured Patrick Nagel-style illustrations of flawless future preppies. One page displayed the Grim Reaper inside the Ghostbusters logo and read ALCOR DEATHBUSTERS!!! Other pages matched highly technical accounts of pre-cryonic body prep with grainy, graphic photos of cadaver parts. An article titled 24TH CENTURY MEDICINE presented a full-page drawing of a man with one arm biomechanically submerged in a thicket of pulsating tubules. It didn’t exactly inspire me to sign up, but I was fascinated by Alcor’s utter obliviousness to its own PR needs.


Once his grandfather (or grandfather’s body, depending on your perspective) was safely stowed at Trans Time, Trygve put his mind to establishing his own cryonics center in his adopted hometown of Nederland, Colorado. He’d once considered setting up shop on a cruise ship, far from government control, but the logistics necessitated he start on a smaller scale. In 1992, he approached Nederland’s planning commission about constructing a legal cryonics facility. The town turned him down, and he commenced building. For $8,000, he bought one in a series of steep, long, problematically subdivided lots that just happened to have spectacular views. He used money from the sale of his grandfather’s summer cabin in Norway to break ground on a combined residence and cryonics facility that was to eventually include multiple underground storage pods.

Survivability was key to Trygve’s plans. He used steel-reinforced concrete to create a main structure that would endure quakes and mudslides. He included fireproof insulation and shotcrete on the facades. There was to be no wood or combustible material of any kind in this building. If he’d forsaken windows, the house would have been safe from a nuclear attack, allegedly “800 yards from ground zero of a one megaton blast” (a borderline-plausible scenario with the Barker Meadow Dam on the other side of town). It may not have been impenetrable, but for all practical purposes, the house was undemolishable.

In September 1993 the main structure was complete, and Trygve felt it was time to bring his grandfather on-site. He had Bredo’s frozen body air-shipped from Trans Time to Stapleton Airport. The Nederland property was nowhere close to the full-fledged, state-of-the-art cryonics facility Trygve envisioned, but he reasoned he had to start somewhere. Bredo’s casket was placed, on copious amounts of dry ice, in a shed behind the house. If Morstoel wasn’t the first recipient of amateur cryonic care, his was certainly the lowest-tech suspension in human history. It was a secret milestone.

The following February, liver failure claimed a Chicago man named Al Campbell (not to be confused with the Al Campbell who was notoriously crushed to death by a performing elephant in Hawaii later that same year). Established cryonics facilities generally shunned last-minute suspensions, so Trans Time referred Campbell’s lifelong companion to Trygve. They signed a half-year contract to keep Al in the box with Bredo, with the intention that this would be a pit stop on the road to a more established facility. With this second client, Trygve had momentum, and he planned on purchasing a Dewar—as the upright cryonic-storage units are known—and upgrading from dry ice to on-site production of liquid nitrogen, powered entirely by wind or solar.

Instead, Trygve was deported. INS agents nabbed him in May, and he was forcibly carried onto an airplane and shipped to Oslo. He’d been in the US for nearly 14 years without a visa or a passport. Although he’d qualified for amnesty under Reagan’s 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, he’d refused to apply on principle. He saw immigration as an issue deeply entwined with cryonic preservation and felt that human rejuvenation and preservation would best occur in a country with free borders for all. “Life extension and longevity go hand in hand with Jeffersonian liberty,” Trygve told me during one of our long conversations.

Aud was distraught. During an interview with the Nederland Mountain-Ear later that week, she said she didn’t know “what would happen to the bodies.” Within hours, police discovered the shed, and within days the media discovered Nederland. The authorities verified that the bodies weren’t the handiwork of a serial killer, and Boulder County health officials quickly determined that the shed posed no health risk. But two days later, the town issued a cease-and-desist order. From Europe, Trygve claimed that the ordinance was unconstitutionally vague and would even “prohibit storing broccoli in people’s freezers.”

The town threatened to take possession of the bodies if Aud didn’t sign an agreement to move both in a timely fashion. At a town-board meeting she exploded, loudly comparing the mayor and the council to Stalin. The board passed a law prohibiting the storage of dead bodies on private property. Several residents offered to take the bodies onto their own properties, and a group of locals formed the Freeze Tax Waste Committee to fight the ordinance. Mayor Bryan Brown declared that he would not allow the matter to “turn into a dog-and-pony show.” Another board member complained, “This has turned into a circus of a media event.”

Municipal court finally found Aud guilty of violating several zoning codes, and—banned from her home—she moved to an apartment in Boulder before finally returning to Oslo the next year. But Trygve still owned the property, and Nederland reluctantly concluded that Bredo had been “grandfathered in” before the ordinance (a delightful bit of wordplay that has been recycled several thousand times). Al Campbell’s companion, perhaps spooked by the media glare, shipped the body back to Chicago, where the family had it cremated.

The town settled into a quiet truce with its most famous resident. After exploring all his options for long-distance grandfather preservation, Trygve discovered Bo Shaffer online. Bo is a Boulder County libertarian, futurist, and “planetary ecologist” who owns and operates his own environmental-consulting company. Shaffer realized he was one of the few locals who could actually do this job, and the two reached a financial agreement for Bo to become Bredo’s caretaker.

During the 1995 holiday season, winds as high as 80 MPH blasted Nederland. Bredo’s shed, held together with plywood and screws, barely survived. That February, a Denver radio station answered Bo’s online pleas for assistance and teamed up with the Tuff Shed company to donate a new, tougher shed for Bredo. This new shed was painted with THE FOX and CLASSIC ROCK and KRFX 103.5 FM. The next April, Bo brought a battery of psychics to the shed to see whether Bredo had any reaction to his new digs (results were inconclusive).

In 1998, three aspiring filmmakers produced Grandpa’s in the Tuff Shed, a short film detailing the entire implausible saga. It’s a quirky, lo-fi watch, seemingly made by and for locals. But the film allowed nearly every notable Nederlander to speak their piece, and for many the mood seemed to be nothing worse than bemused resignation.

In late 1999, Bo stocked up on dry ice to prepare the shed for Y2K. Born in the 19th century, Bredo entered the 21st under the watchful eye of a libertarian guardian angel. He’d traveled farther, as a corpse, than many people do in a lifetime. When Bredo died, “carbon footprint” wasn’t yet a popular term. Now he was one of the few humans to continue having a carbon footprint even after death, nestled deep in chunks of CO2; quite literally surrounded by greenhouse gases. The world’s population had nearly quadrupled since Bredo was born, and although he was dead, his death carried an asterisk: perhaps eternal, perhaps only clinical.


Alcor had also covered a lot of ground in the 1990s. In 1994, concerned about fires, floods, earthquakes, and urban riots, the company relocated from Southern California to suburban Phoenix. There were also quieter concerns about Left Coast animal rights activism. Alcor openly tested its techniques and chemicals on domesticated animals, and the early 1990s were—at least to most animal experimenters—a time of lab-smashing, ski-masked antivivisectionist berserkers. Then there was Alcor’s relationship with the cops. In 1987, several company officials had been briefly arrested on suspicion of euthanizing the mother of a board member. Police bungling imploded the case, handing a PR boon to Alcor—which won two subsequent lawsuits against the county—but the incident left an aftertaste of mistrust.

The 1990s also saw a seismic shift in public opinion toward cryonics. Dolly the Scottish sheep was cloned in 1996, and the Human Genome Project completed its working draft of a human DNA map five years later. Cellular manipulation and nanotech, once the stuff of pulpy fantasy gazettes, quickly gained a respectable sheen. Alcorians had long insisted that their organization was on the vanguard of human biotechnology. By the turn of the century, this posturing had the aroma of possibility.

In April 2002, still researching cryonics, I scheduled a tour of Alcor’s facilities in the greater Phoenix area. My appointment somehow got lost in the front-office computer, so when I arrived at the nondescript industrial-park facility, I had to do some fast talking just to get into the lobby. The receptionist was putting the finishing touches on a new website. From over her shoulder, I noticed that the company had changed its logo, ditching the campy sci-fi rising-phoenix emblem (an unintentional mirror of the City of Phoenix logo gracing every street corner) for an abstract triangle insignia that could easily belong to any large European insurance consortium.

I eventually talked my way into the inner sanctum. I noted the cleanliness of the space, and the lack of eye contact on the part of my host, Dr. Lemmler, who actually wore a calculator wristwatch. Stepping briskly through the perfusion and cooldown rooms—Stations of the Cross for the freshly deanimated—we passed a flyer for something called a Longevity Boot Camp and wall-mounted DNA-saver kits. Security cameras were everywhere. I met Aido, the apparently testing-exempt Alcor cat, and then I was ushered into the room that contained the tanks of bodies. The space looked like a microbrewery. In the background, I could just hear a faint, glacial hum. Alcor held 48 clients—some bodies, some heads—on that day.


That same year, 2002, the Nederland Chamber of Commerce struggled to concoct a theme for the planned spring festival. Every March, merchants in mountain towns hit the doldrums. Launching a “March Madness” festival didn’t appeal to many locals and seemed unlikely to compel hordes of shoppers to make the snowy drive from Boulder. What did Nederland have that other towns didn’t?

The husband of a local merchant mentioned Mike the Headless Chicken at a chamber meeting. Four hours down I-70, the town of Fruita was planning its fourth annual Mike the Headless Chicken Day, a boisterous small-town festival celebrating a chicken that had managed to live for 18 months after decapitation (the ax missed the bird’s brain stem; its owner fed Mike’s stump with an eyedropper). In sheer morbid novelty, Bredo beat Mike hands down. Why not flip the story to Nederland’s advantage?

The Frozen Dead Guy Days festival kicked off the first weekend that March. By every measure, it was a smash hit, bringing local merchants and the chamber of commerce $50,000. Tourists drank, shopped, and engaged in all manner of tenuously cryonics-themed festivities. Visitors got a look at Bredo’s shed. Small-town weirdos dressed crazy with impunity. Combining elements of Burning Man, Mardi Gras, Oktoberfest, and Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade, the FDGD fest instantly converted Nederland’s biggest liability into its biggest asset. Although the Colorado statehouse narrowly rejected naming March 9 Frozen Dead Guy Day (“I thought that was Al Gore’s birthday resolution,” grumbled the Republican house speaker), Nederland had deftly executed a dramatic conversion on the subject of home cryonics.


Outside Colorado, world opinion on cryonics was about to undergo a dramatic shift as well. Red Sox Hall of Famer (and two-war hero) Ted Williams died of cardiac arrest that July. Williams’s will requested cremation, but after two of his three children produced signed documents with Alcor, his body was transported to Phoenix, decapitated, and placed on ice (allegations later surfaced that Alcor mistakenly beheaded Williams and then froze his body and head separately).

William’s son John Henry bore the brunt of withering public attacks, including a lawsuit brought by an older daughter. It was a complicated story, with several facets too nuanced for the average citizen to grasp. That the Alcor contracts were of dubious authenticity had more to say about the family—and, by some accounts, Alcor—than the actual practice of cryonics. Accusations that the son wanted to sell his father’s DNA were generally lumped in, by a glib media, with the unrelated issue of the freezing itself. And of course there was the case of the missing motive—Williams’s suspension, coming last minute, necessitated an up-front payment. Why would any scheming heir do anything to take a six-figure chunk out of his own inheritance?


In 2004, Alan Kunzman published Mothermelters: The Inside Story of Cryonics and the Dora Kent Homicide. Kunzman had been senior deputy coroner investigator with the County Coroner’s Office in Riverside, California, and it was on his watch that Alcor members had been arrested, briefly, in 1987. The investigation into the possible drug-induced death and decapitation of an elderly Alzheimer’s patient quickly dissolved after departmental and interoffice incompetence. Kunzman’s tale is a badly written rehash of a battle won by Alcor 17 years earlier, both legally and in the public eye (“They won just because we outdumbed them”). The book’s demographic is probably limited to people who, like me, have followed the company for the past two decades.

As an exposé, Mothermelters does a much better job of raising old suspicions of bias among the Riverside police. “What the hell would they be doing with an incubator?” Kunzman asks after inspecting the facility. “It was only speculation, but as I learned more about these people I wondered if they might have been experimenting on babies. Had no proof of it, but it crossed my mind.” Later, he rails against something called “moral anemia.”

The year after my visit to Phoenix, Alcor hired a former paramedic named Larry Johnson as its new clinical director. In his seven months at the company, Johnson rose to chief operating officer. He also turned whistleblower, copying documents on the sly and wiretapping coworkers with a microphone taped to his gut. That autumn, he turned his intelligence over to a Sports Illustrated writer and subsequently went into hiding, allegedly fearing for his life from menacing cryonics supporters.

Johnson remained in exile until the 2009 publication of Frozen: My Journey Into the World of Cryonics, Deception, and Death. In this book, Johnson accuses Alcorians of nepotism, abysmal hygiene, chronic infighting, and group hypochondria, and later of Mob links, drug smuggling, and possible human vivisection. At one point, he compares Alcor top brass to the Nazis. His expose is often scattershot (for no good reason, he dwells on Alcor’s patient caretaker Mike Perry’s self-castration and later declares it “unsavory” that Alcor targets sci-fi fans). But in his capacity as an informed insider, Johnson compiled a mother lode of evidence of corporate negligence and abuse.

Just as both men document Alcor’s misdoings with some plausibility, both also shatter this plausibility late in the game (Kunzman by attempting to sell the story to Hollywood, Johnson by setting up a website selling graphic, private photos of Alcor clients). Where Mothermelters was a nonevent, however, Frozen was a direct hit, a nuclear assault on the foundations of Alcor’s public trust. Unable to ignore Johnson’s charges, Alcor has refuted many (although not all) of his allegations on its website. It’s anyone’s guess whether the scandal has affected enrollment. But it is fair to say that Frozen’s account of gross physical abuse against Ted Williams’ defenseless skull—thawings and wrench beatings, among other charges—lent more credibility to cryonics skeptics in one fell swoop than decades of bad Jay Leno jokes had.

It’s telling that Amazon.com pairs Frozen, via the Frequently Bought Together link, with Glenn Beck’s Arguing With Idiots: How to Stop Small Minds and Big Government. The “Common Sense” strain of current populist conservatism—an entire political philosophy neatly summed up by Beck’s exasperated smirk—is really just a retooled form of old-fashioned anti-intellectualism. In Mothermelters, Kunzman returns again and again to the central theme that the staff at Alcor was a bunch of snobbish intellectual elitists. Right from the opening pages, the coroner lashes out at Alcor reps who, he felt, made a point of demonstrating their mental superiority over him. He logs every smug look, every laugh at his expense, every gesture of “arrogance” and “self-importance” and “self-congratulations.” After seizing Perry’s diary, he reads it, pronounces Perry a “smartass,” and proceeds to divulge the contents to his readers.

Before Ted Williams, cryonics skated the outer rim of public consciousness through occasional snarky human-interest stories. After Williams, the subject lent itself to sinister exposes. In a July 2002 CNN interview with Johnson, a flustered Connie Chung blurted, “This is macabre!” In the Sports Illustrated piece, the nitty-gritty of Williams’s abuse included the scandalous details that his head had “accidentally cracked” and rested in something that “resembled” a lobster pot.

Although “cracking” is a nonissue in the cryonics world—long since addressed by the company as a ho-hum byproduct of freezing—it plays well with the Common Sense dignity argument. When Larry Johnson spoke with Howard Stern last year, the radio host zeroed in on allegations that Alcor used tuna cans as pedestals for frozen heads, a detail fetishistically repeated by most media outlets. “That would be mistreatment right off the bat,” cohost Robin Quivers added with the self-definitional force of Glenn Beckian Common Sense.

Frozen takes pains not to disparage the practice of cryonics itself, and yet Johnson waffles on this point in interviews. On CBS last year, he gravely intoned about “the decapitation of corpses.” Six years earlier, on ABC, he used the word “desecrated” to describe the Williams freezing.

The desecration angle is a potent weapon for cryonics detractors. In one TV interview, Ted Williams’s estranged daughter Bobby-Jo Ferrell, voice warbling with rage, said, “My dad’s in a metal tube, on his head, so frozen that if I touched him it would crack him because of the warmth from my fingertips. It makes me so sick.” Post-Frozen news stories frequently mention that Alcor stores its bodies and heads upside down (in the event of catastrophic failure or leak, the brains would be the last to thaw). On a contentious July 2002 CNN Crossfire debate about cryonics, Paul Begala shouted down the Alcor representative, then made a weird point that Williams would have wanted his money to go toward cancer research instead.

There’s a strange double standard to detractors’ arguments: the idea that people should have the dignity of autonomy in their last wishes, but only if they choose an end that conforms to existing templates. Of many celebrity funerary deviations—UK Lord Avebury’s 1987 request to be fed to dogs, Hunter S. Thompson having his ashes shot from a cannon in 2005—none has stirred national outrage like the Williams freezing.

There is also a suggestion of coercion. This is the idea that Alcor, having a vested financial interest in an individual’s death, is somehow more suspicious than a funeral home. But cryonics is a comparatively cheap way to go. The infamously steep suspension costs—$80,000 to $150,000—can be handled by a simple life-insurance policy. After a $200 application fee and monthly life-insurance premiums, Alcor costs $600 a year. $450 of that fee is tax deductible, so it would take more than 30 years to match the expense of an average American funeral ($6,000, according to the Federal Trade Commission). Around LA County, garish billboards for cemetery franchise Forest Lawn plead DON’T HAVE SOMEONE ELSE’S FUNERAL. This ad campaign seems far more manipulative and icky than the creepiest of 1990 Alcor literature.


Then there’s the feasibility angle. Johnson returned several times to the “strawberries” argument—a Glenn Beckish, Common Sense point that frozen strawberries, when defrosted, turn to pulpy glop. Penn and Teller deliver the ultimate smirky Common Sense smackdown against cryonics in an episode of their Showtime series, Bullshit! At one point, the editor in chief of something called the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine says, “They’re banking on someone in the distant future solving the problem of”—here he gives a little exasperated chuckle and a smirk—“thawing. All you have on thawing is mush.” A YouTube comment below this episode reads, “The damage created when we are frozen is caused from the ice crystals. The crystals slice right through the cell walls and therefore it is BS science.”

This point, too, has been addressed to death by Alcor and every other cryonics organization, being the cornerstone of the industry. The basic idea is that nanotechnology will eventually reach a point where cells can be repaired on an individual basis. Ice crystals, the thinking goes, will be no match for the millions or billions of tiny, cilia-propelled nanobots that will chug through ripped cells, mending cracks and repairing damage. It’s a fantastical idea, but no more so than the heart-lung machine would have been in 1910.

Some perspective: When I was born, in 1969, the guidance computer on the Apollo 11 Lunar Module could store 50 kilobytes of data and weighed 50 pounds. My iPhone stores 16 gigabytes and weighs 4.8 ounces, a 150-fold weight reduction and a 320,000-fold increase in capacity. By this math, in 2049—my own statistical endpoint—5.1 petabytes will fit inside something weighing 0.21 milligrams. That’s 100 million filing cabinets packed into something less than a quarter the weight of a honeybee’s brain. Barring catastrophe (or limits on Moore’s law), such advances are inevitable. To deny this on Common Sense grounds seems, somehow, anti-American.
 


Not far past Nederland’s town border and its large vinyl banner announcing the ninth annual FROZEN DEAD GUY DAYS, I approached St. Rita’s Catholic Church and its more staid announcement for MASS 9:30 SUNDAY. I realized it was 9:30 and it was Sunday, so I pulled into the church’s lot. Rita is the patron saint of lost or impossible causes, and I thought the service might somehow tie the namesake’s link to the weekend’s goings-on. After some hymns and pleasantries, a man who identified himself as Deacon David delivered the homily. He spoke nicely of the Pharisees and the parable of the fruitless fig tree, but there was no mention of Lazarus, or the Resurrection, or eternal life, or any of the other half-dozen topics he could have woven from Bredo’s predicament.

Later, I asked the deacon whether he had intentionally ignored any themes related to the festival. He told me he had and almost launched into a rant on Catholic policy on the dignity and care of the deceased before he carefully stopped himself. The subject matter of any given service is “not a matter of church policy, it’s the choice of homilist,” he finally said, testily. Avoiding disagreeable topics in church services didn’t quite make sense to me—clerics of all faiths have never really shied away from subjects with which they disagreed. But I didn’t want to push it. “The novelty has worn out,” he added in a weary, displeased voice. “Even for the people in Nederland.”


As I headed into town, I wondered whether this could actually be true. Even at midmorning, the streets were vacant. Spray-painted plywood signs for EVENT PARKING led me to a deserted parking lot. I worried I’d come on the wrong day and then, since I knew this wasn’t true, that some sort of Twilight Zone scenario might be going down. I parked and walked toward the collection of shops in the heart of downtown.

Eventually I found a young woman at the otherwise vacant Frozen Dead Guy HQ. She told me Saturday’s gorgeous weather had brought as many as 10,000 visitors—a record—and that the tiny town had been transformed into “a parking lot.” Saturday was “a doozy” and people were “still recovering.” Over the course of the day I would hear this refrain echoed many times by groaning merchants.

Nederland is only 17 miles southwest of Boulder, but it is 3,000 feet higher and has the mood of someplace far more remote. The town’s name means “nether lands,” or “low lands”—a nickname left by 19th-century miners working in the yet higher elevations of nearby Caribou—and is pronounced with a soft “e,” making the town “Ned” to Boulder County locals. After a century of silver- and tungsten-mining booms and busts, Ned evolved into a mountainous refuge for hippies and libertarians and people too weird for Boulder.

At the 1910 carousel in the heart of downtown, a sign told me the site was being renovated by Positive Energy Electrical. Not far away, locals can shop at the Mountain People Co-op, Grateful Meds, or Nedicate (Nederland is probably the only American town of 1,300 with four medicinal-pot dispensaries and an “indoor gardening supplies” store). I saw many NEDITATE bumper stickers on otherwise solidly middle-American pickup trucks.
 

Past Frozen Dead Guy Days festivals have featured ice swimming, coffin races, frozen-t-shirt contests, frozen-turkey bowling, interpretive death dances, and Frozen Dead Guy look-alike contests. I’d missed Saturday’s parade of hearses, some modified like Road Warrior vehicles, and a raucous parade that apparently included an H1N1-themed team in pig costumes who weren’t above rolling in the mud for laughs.

Favored drinks—and Ned drinks a lot every FDGD festival—include Oregon’s Dead Guy Ale microbrew, the vodka-based Grandpa’s Spirit, and, of course, Old Grand-Dad on ice. Buffalo Bill’s Coffee & Confections sold Crispy Grandpa Treats, blocks of Rice Krispie and marshmallow dyed blue or green, each embedded with a little gummy soldier man. Somehow, Nederland has managed to distill the worst allegations against Alcor (disrespect for human remains) and the worst allegations against Larry Johnson (sensationalism and profiteering) and merge both into a thriving, family-friendly weekend festival.

Over the afternoon, the town swelled with merrymakers, and blues rock echoed down normally silent residential side streets. It was another unseasonably warm day, the gutters glistening with channels of melted snow and mud. There was no shortage of bros, or beards, or bearded bros calling out for their unleashed dogs, all of whose names started with the letter z.

After checking out the Brain Freezer beer tent—an utterly typical collegiate beer garden—I walked over to the Sunday Family Funday at the Reanimation Tent. One patch of grass had been reserved for kids’ events, and although I’d read of kiddie coffin races, the activities on this day stuck to face painting and glitter crafts. I overheard someone say, “There’s supposed to be, like, a frozen dead guy.” All around Nederland, I repeatedly overhead people explaining and mangling the concept to one another, like a town-wide game of Telephone.

On First Street, next to a crystal shop that looked like a parody of a crystal shop, I stepped into a hemp store and found a collection of festival t-shirts: NEDSTERDAM, GRANDPA HAS A POSSE, and, most meta of all, GRANDPA’S IN THE PUFF SHED. The shirts incorporated the official FDGD festival graphic, an iconic grandpa—not Bredo—with spooky recessed eyes and a long Rasputin beard. It was more Trygve than Trygve’s grandfather.

Trygve’s relationship with the festival has wavered over the years. In 2005, his mother was invited to serve as grand marshal of the Dead Guy parade. Trygve lobbied two Colorado congressmen and the king and queen of Norway, and Aud was granted a three-month visa. But once in Nederland, she grew upset over the festival’s success and the lack of profit-sharing with her family. After one or more confrontations with local merchant Teresa Warren (the not entirely reliable Boulder Daily Camera reported that Aud drunkenly hit Warren and claimed Warren “owed her $60,000 for a shirt”), Aud was arrested and charged with harassment.

From 4,600 miles away, Trygve declared the festival “dead” and, enforcing his only leverage, forbade any further shed tours. He and his mother had learned to live with that year’s festival poster, featuring his grandfather (meaning the fake graphic version of his grandfather) as a menacing zombie. Why, Trygve asked reporters, couldn’t the town show the same forbearance toward his mom?


The festival went on. Relations have since healed and shed tours have resumed. But when I asked Trygve over the phone about the dustup, he still seemed wary. He voiced no objections to the commercialization of his grandfather (on his own website, he lists 51 trademarks, including “Boulder Polar Bear Club”™, “Rocky Mountain Cryonic’s [sic] Facility”™, “Frozen Grandpas”™, and every possible variation on his and his grandfather’s names). And he didn’t seem to mind that he sees only one-third of the shed-tour proceeds, this year allegedly only $600, or less than the cost of one month of dry ice. Trygve’s lingering beef was with the original town ordinance banning further freezing of human remains. Its repeal had been hinted at by the town government, but somehow no one ever got around to actually repealing it.

I drove up to the Sundance Lodge to watch the Frozen Salmon Toss. The lodge is a mile out of town, with a spectacular view facing away from Boulder, down onto the Continental Divide, where distant ski runs seemed to spell out massive letters. People indeed tossed frozen salmon on the lodge’s lawn, having paid $5 each for a shot at the $100 gift certificate for farthest toss. I watched 15-pound thawing fish hurtled over and over again into the dirty scrub in front of the lodge’s long porch. After each fish struck the ground—eyes gaping, meat flying—a festival official would measure the distance and then another official would retrieve the fish in a filthy rainbow-colored toboggan.

It occurred to me that this ritual could just as easily be a local custom with no relation to cryonics (though there seemed to be some sort of analogy regarding Deacon David’s respect-for the-dead argument). Two little boys stood next to me, slack-faced at yet another incomprehensible adult ritual that will one day resurface as a baffling memory.

Perhaps taking in the sci-fi aspect of the day by osmosis, the larger boy turned to the smaller boy and said, in a robot voice, “I’m-sorry-sir-but-my-sensors-indicate-that-you-are-a-weenie.” Nearby, a fish hit the ground wrong and exploded in a spray of meat. Someone yelled, “Come on, Tony! Show it who’s boss!”

The word “cryonics” is a secret password. “Cryogenics” is the science of low temperatures. “Cryonics” is the science of freezing people and animals. Nearly all reportage on cryonics uses the wrong word. Besides the New York Times, I have yet to read any news source that consistently gets it right. The Boulder Daily Camera has called the process “cryogenesis,” and a Denver Channel 4 newsman once called it “cry-ro-genics.” Even Nederland’s own FDGD poster has gotten the word wrong, as has Bo Shaffer’s own website (despite a page addressing this distinction). This would be a pet peeve, if it didn’t neatly expose a bias: Most reporters don’t even respect the subject enough to get its name right. Cryonics is the Rodney Dangerfield of speculative medical procedures.

At three that afternoon, I waited in front of Buffalo Bill’s for the $25 shed tour. About a dozen of us were divided among three different cars and driven up steep, narrow mountain streets. The driver of my car sported a sparkly rainbow top hat and was still wearing frozen cadaver makeup, like a Rocky Horror Picture Show groupie. Two women in the seat behind me announced they had driven the hour and a half from Fort Collins. When I told them I had come from California, one said, “Not everyone from Colorado is as weird as this!” with an eruption of girly giggles.

Trygve’s abandoned house loomed up from the road. It is the ugliest private residence I’ve ever seen. A series of gray concrete slabs formed a boxy fort, and crenulated pseudo-battlements lined the roof, making the place look like a monstrous fish-tank decoration. Trygve later assured me that these notches were built to support future I-beam loads—and were not, as reported, to provide cover in a hypothetical gun battle with authorities. But it still looked like a compound.

A chipper, mustached gentleman greeted our group, introduced himself as Bo Shaffer, and led us around the site. He told us that Trygve’s bank has shown great flexibility with the mortgage payments, in no way wanting to foreclose on an undemolishable property with a legally stored dead body.

Earlier, watching the Tuff Shed documentary at the video store, I’d noticed other tourists smirking and guffawing and glancing over at one another to make sure everyone agreed how funny it all was. It was an odd echo of the Crossfire audience’s incredulous laughter, overblown and seemingly defensive in nature. Here at the house, I noticed this same tendency for the crowd to overstate the mirth, as if everyone felt the need to laugh extra-loud to assert a collective dismissal. Sometimes it was hard to tell which subject drew the yuks. Was it Trygve’s life? Bredo’s death? Cryonics itself? When Bo showed us the concrete wall that marked the unbuilt tunnel to the unbuilt underground pods, the group erupted in sniggers and smirks, almost like a reflex. Apparently it was a hilarious wall.

Our tour continued into the basement where Aud once lived. Pictures had shown me the space as a minimally comfortable living area with throw rugs, lawn chairs, and a working wood stove. Now it looked like an abandoned stoner fort. A stepladder had been set up for Trygve’s use only, Shaffer noted, Aud having been in no condition to access the upper floors of the house. There were no plumbing or kitchen facilities, the only amenity being Trygve’s copy machine in one corner, dusty under piles of books and papers.


A hole in the ceiling offered a peek into the second floor. Looking straight up, I was able to see more stacks of papers and bankers’ boxes, at least two industrial shelves’ worth. Papers spilled over the edge of the hole. Bo joked about the effects of a pack rat, and it took a beat to understand he meant an actual pack rat had settled into the boxes. Shaffer showed us several of the thousands upon thousands of architectural drawings, plans, and petitions Trygve had left behind. He also showed us several relevant books on cryonics, and offered aluminum strips of the original shed for $15, and politely requested donations for Bredo’s “un-slushfund.”

We stepped back outside and Bo led us to the shed. The KRFX ad had been painted over after the zoning board complained that the advertising constituted signage on private property. A small LIBERTARIAN sign hung under the roof, although it wasn’t clear whether this was Bo’s or Trygve’s. The door opened with an ominous creak (after one door got oiled, Bo made sure the other door stayed nice and loud).

Most of the shed was occupied by a plywood box roughly the size of a hot tub. Bo laboriously removed the box’s heavy covering and flipped open the top to reveal an insulated pit lined with 12 inches of Styrofoam and filled with ten-pound slabs of smoldering dry ice. An aluminum casket rested below, wrapped in an old-timey horror-movie chain (to facilitate its eventual removal). After fresh dry ice is loaded, Bo explained, the insulation is carefully repacked, with the goal of forming as tight a seal as possible. Several discarded KRFX banners are used as liners between layers of insulation. On top of the dry ice, Bo had left a pint each of butter pecan and vanilla ice cream, as well as a Tupperware container holding the remains of Bredo’s 107th-birthday cake. Grandpa had been afforded more dignity than Mike the Headless Chicken or Anonymous the Frozen Salmon, but less than most funerals and wakes I’ve attended.

Bo has never seen Bredo, and he’s never met Trygve face to face. Trygve’s monthly payments cover dry ice, two helpers, and a vehicle capable of ferrying 1,600 pounds up steep, slick mountain roads in treacherous conditions. There’s not much profit left over. Some winters the drifts reach seven feet, high enough that Bo can only park beyond the driveway, laboriously hauling blocks of dry ice across the snow with a toboggan. On those days, the job can take six hours. It’s a lot of work for not so much money. He does the job, he told me later, because it gives him a good story. It occurred to me that what Alcor wants is an army of Bo Shaffers, tireless laborers dedicated to the cause (or maybe not: Frozen was one of the books he discussed with our tour group). According to Bo, Mike Perry—the Alcor CEO who allegedly castrated himself—has attended more than one FDGD festival in a ZZ Top spy disguise.

This dedication highlighted the precariousness of all cryonics. Who will someday replace Bo? Who will pay whoever someday replaces Bo? Like nuclear physics, cryonics is one of those rare fields that must plan for deep duration. The financial collapse of 2008 raised the specter of global depression, an existential threat to every cryonics client far more pressing, in the long run, than the quakes and riots that squeezed Alcor from Riverside. In 350 pages of accusations, the most potent charge Larry Johnson can level against Alcor is that it has mismanaged its own finances.

Trygve, 52, told me he felt he has “many more years” to resolve the financing issue. He may someday transport his grandfather back to Norway or to another existing facility. He expressed hope that Nederland would eventually repeal the 1994 town ordinance and allow more cryonic storage on his land. Perhaps Nederland will eventually pick up the tab for its frozen golden goose. Perhaps it won’t. New Hampshire, after all, continues to honor its Old Man in the Mountain granite cliff landmark even now, seven years after its collapse. It’s an odd irony of Frozen Dead Guy Days: Nederland doesn’t necessarily need Bredo to celebrate Bredo.

For all his dedication, Bo seemed agnostic on cryonic viability. This would still make him one of the most cryonics-optimistic people I met that day. In the Tuff Shed documentary, Boulder reporter Clay Evans says Bredo’s brain is mush and impersonates Peter Boyle’s moans in Young Frankenstein. It’s unclear whether he means this because Bredo’s postmortem handling wasn’t up to code or because he feels cryonics itself is a sham. Perhaps he believes, as some do, that even a brain rebuilt cell by cell wouldn’t retain its memory. On this point, skepticism of the skepticism seems warranted: No one knows exactly what would happen to the consciousness of a mind thawed and rebuilt. Brains have survived horrific injuries, even loss of entire lobes, with an uncanny knack for self-repair.

Members of the cryonics community have tossed around the terms “immortal” and “forever.” The father of cryonics, author Robert Ettinger, set this tone in 1962, with his preposterously titled The Prospect of Immortality. But even the most die-hard cryophiles can’t mean these words literally. Someday the sun will explode. Eventually the universe will collapse or scatter. Every living thing eventually dies, no matter how many extensions it gets. Even people who have figured out how to live hundreds or thousands or millions of years will eventually die. In a best-case scenario, cryonics will still only defer the inevitable, no matter how long and incredible that deferral might be.

For most people, for most of their lives, the vastness of the human life span renders death a blurry abstraction. I won’t be the same person I am now in 40 years, any more than I was the same person 40 years ago. To contemplate yourself in the distant future is to ponder someone else, the person who will eventually inherit your consciousness. It’s always possible to hope that this person will be too accomplished, or satisfied, or at least exhausted, to fear their own cessation.

According to Trygve, his grandfather wanted to stay, regardless of how accomplished or exhausted he was. I thought of him up here, night after night, alone. Whether Bredo was in the Nether World or still here in the Nether Lands, it seemed unbearably lonely, even with the annual visits by guffawing strangers. If some entity not yet born or built actually revives him, his circumstances could easily be lonelier still.

Bo made motions to usher us from the shed. I suddenly felt spooked. Hopefully, this was the only casket I will ever see outside a funeral home. Viable or not, Bredo was at that moment very much a corpse, and in that respect there was nothing even remotely unique about his situation. Someday all of us will be dead.

I peered down into the big plywood vault one last time. What will it be like?
 
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